The Arty Semite

Bosnia Through Muslim Eyes

By Dorri Olds

  • Print
  • Share Share

New York author Susan Shapiro and her Muslim physical therapist, Kenan Trebincevic, bonded, and together they wrote the recently published “The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return” (Penguin Books). The book tells the story of the Bosnian War through Trebincevic’s eyes.

In 1992 he was 12 and living a normal, happy childhood, until his beloved karate coach arrived at the door one day with an AK-47 rifle and yelled, “You have one hour to leave or be killed.” Christian Serb neighbors and classmates turned on him and his family. Their crime? They were Muslim. Trebincevic fled to America. Now, after two decades in the United States, Trebincevic is going back to visit his homeland to confront the neighbors who’d betrayed him and his family.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Shapiro for an exclusive interview.

Dorri Olds: How did you come to co-write “The Bosnia List”?

Susan Shapiro: I’d torn two ligaments in my lower back and went to Kenan for physical therapy. I’m a writing teacher at The New School and my first assignment is to write three pages on your most humiliating secret. I [sent him] a poignant New York Times essay my student had just published about how she and her mother, a Holocaust survivor, eat bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur as a way to cope with her father’s suicide on that day 17 years earlier. He found that piece inspiring. Next time I met with Kenan, he handed me three pages about his recent return from a trip to Bosnia after two decades in the United States, where he and his Muslim family fled for safety from the ethnic cleansing campaign. I thought, he’s like the male, Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story.

Did you identify with him because of your Jewish background and our history of genocide?

Yes, my family lost relatives in Eastern Europe during World War II. Kenan said his Jewish friends, colleagues and clients have been the most sensitive because they identify with what he went through. The Israelis were sympathetic to the Bosnians and airlifted supplies and took in refugees during the war.

I have many relatives in Israel. Though I’m liberal, after 9/11, living near the World Trade Center, I secretly feared I could become Islamophobic. I decided to avoid talking about religion or politics. That turned out to be hilarious. That’s all Kenan and I wound up talking about — and writing about — for the next two years.

Did the two of you see eye to eye on how to tell the story?

Yes. English wasn’t his first language, and he’d never taken a writing or literature class, but he was open, especially after The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Salon published pieces I’d helped him with. I love memoirs, [and I] write, read and review them, so he trusted me and took to it very quickly. He’s from a closed-off male macho culture, so he had trouble opening up about how he feels. I wanted to know why his family never asked how he felt during the war. He said, “They were too busy telling me to duck.”

Which were the toughest parts of the book to write?

Our Viking/Penguin editor, Wendy Wolf — who did a brilliant editing job — was very well versed in Bosnia. When she read the first draft, she basically said, “Every page you have here is great; now just add 100 pages of Yugoslavian history.” I was surprised I could do such a crash course in the Balkans. I thought the memoir pages were very intimate and exciting, so the hardest part was to weave the historical background throughout the book to give Americans the background without boring them. A friend who read “The Bosnia List” joked, “You found your voice — as a 12-year-old Muslim boy.”

Do you feel that writing this book changed both of you?

Kenan’s late mother’s favorite movie was “Schindler’s List.” She used to tell him it was their story, too. She wanted to write about how they survived, but she died of cancer before she could. So he dedicated the book to her. Kenan said he felt a moral obligation to tell this story for his mother, his people and anyone who has been persecuted because of their religion, race or nationality.

When we started writing it, he was afraid that no Americans cared about the Balkan War or what happened to his family. I always told him that writing is a way of turning your worst experience into the most beautiful. Now he gets it. My back is better, he feels more lucky than bitter. It really was a book of healing.

His mother was diagnosed with cancer when he was 12. So he never had a birthday party after that. I told him that it took me 13 years to publish my first novel, so instead of having a book launch, I had a book mitzvah with a candle-lighting ceremony. He was very intrigued with the idea of honoring people who’ve helped you. So for “The Bosnia List” book party, we made him an honorary Jew and gave him a bar mitzvah with a big cake shaped like the book. He called his family, friends and colleagues so they could help him light a candle. I really am his Jewish mother.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Bosnia List, Susan Shapiro, Kenan Trebincevic, Interviews, Books

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.